Are we witnessing the decline of the US, the rise of China, or the birth of a new global order?
The breakup of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver could be a sign, a political omen reminding us that nothing lasts, not even the bond between an indestructible cyborg governor and his iconic trophy wife. Is it too soon to say they never seemed quite right for one another?
But seriously: if nothing lasts – not even the bond between Mr. Universe and a Kennedy– what does that mean for the country, especially for the idea that the US is exceptional, blessed, unbeatable, the last best superpower in the world? The Big One, as Michael Moore once tried to rename it in his movie of the same name.
It certainly has more and bigger weapons than anyplace else. Militarily there’s no competition – except maybe from asymmetrical warfare, cyber warfare, possibly psychic warfare, and the power of a motivated civil society. But aside from the undisputed ability of the US to take out opponents or destabilize regimes, it role and standing in the world is nevertheless changing. We sense it every day. Can the Big One still make things happen? Is the Age of America over after less than a century? Can an over-the-hill empire make new friends and “win the future?”
Experts have been predicting the end of the US as the leading power on the planet for some time. It just appears to be happening faster than anyone expected. The new thinking in some quarters is that whoever wins the next presidential election may preside over America’s public fall from Number One.
And what country could overtake it? The smart money is on China, already the second largest economy in the world. In 2001, Goldman Sachs predicted that it would rival Germany by 2011. Mission accomplished. In April, the International Monetary Fund revised the forecast: China’s economy, they now project, will be the world’s largest by 2016. That’s five years from now and it could be sooner.
But China’s leaders, despite their pride and ambitions, don’t want to see the US go belly up. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship, competitive but respectful and slowly leaning toward long-term commitment. China needs US economic growth. Budget deficits and low interest rates in America fuel inflation around the world, drive up food prices and create the type of instability that makes China’s old men worry. They also need US consumers – Hey, it’s what we’re good at – as well as the relative security of US bonds and the occasional deployment of US or NATO troops. America is a cash cow with a big stick, and will be for some time.
But beyond that, America doesn’t matter much in Asia anymore. Japan and Russia are resolving their own conflict over the Kurile Islands. Indonesia is mediating a border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is working out the argument over islands in the South China Sea. The US isn’t calling many shots these days.
Some says it is still indispensable to balance China’s power, especially in the region. That’s Cold War logic, updated as a war of civilizations. But there’s a difference. No one says China is planning to physically take over other countries. Instead, it has been watching these last 30 years as, first, the Soviet Union bankrupted itself while struggling to compete with the US militarily, and then the US over-extended itself and alienated much of the world. So far China is showing more restraint.
The current moment is playing like the end of a classic western. The grizzled, battle-weary lawman – the US in this case – finally takes out his nemesis (Osama), leader of the Hole in the World gang. But it’s a last hurrah, a True Grit moment just before the sanitarium and Boot Hill. The next feature is about to begin.
One sign of the change underway, according to Nicholas Kristof, is that, statistically, a child in Shanghai will now outlive a child in the United States. While the US was intervening to secure oil supplies and chasing an exaggerated enemy – one whose leader was holed up like some has-been super-villain – a new power arose in the East and the Pacific Century began.
That’s one version of geo-political reality. But the establishment, whose views are often well articulated in Foreign Affairs, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations, claims that although the “great wheel of power is turning,” the US isn’t really in decline. It’s just that other states are catching up.
In a recent article called “The Future of the Liberal World Order,” Princeton Professor G. Jon Ikenberry admits the danger that “liberal internationalism” – as loosely administered through various multilateral agreements, organizations, and the UN – could give way to a “fragmented system” with competing blocs, spheres of influences and regional rivalries. That’s the nightmare scenario, and it does sound bad when you put it that way.
In the future, the list of big players will surely expand to include China, India and Brazil. You could also call that the beginning of a multi-polar world, an opportunity for diversity and self-determination, something positive. Yet the only alternative most think tankers can see to the current neoliberal “internationalist” model is a more authoritarian capitalist one. Reagan’s Ambassador to the UN, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, called States that followed this path Moderately Repressive Authoritarian Regimes, or MRAGs. She thought we could work with them well enough, more so of course than with dreaded “socialist” renegades like Nicaragua and Cuba.
Ikenberry claims that the struggle isn’t over basic principles, that not even China wants to “contest the basic rules and principles of the liberal international order; they wish to gain more authority and leadership within it.” Thus, maybe the future will just be a mild update of neoliberalism with some moderately authoritarian features. Sounds inviting, doesn’t it?
One intriguing element of this analysis – triumphalism in the face of adversity – is the plain admission that the current international system is basically a “mutual-aid society,” a “global political club” that provides tools for advancement – regulatory agreements, trading opportunities, security guarantees and other frameworks. All true, except for omission of that fact that the playing field isn’t close to level. As many nations have learned, the “frameworks” generally serve the interests of the dominant players, generally the most developed countries. In most cases it’s a pay-to-play question, a top-down power sharing arrangement that gives lip service to democracy while simultaneously undermining sovereignty and distorting development through structural adjustment.
In the world according to Foreign Affairs, however, the only choice is between expanding the current system or “a less cooperative order built on spheres of influence,” between the status quo and “isolationist, protectionist and anti-international factions.” Not much of a choice, but a handy way to marginalize movements around the world that are fighting for a fair, democratic, and humanistic alternative to a corporate world order.
But don’t worry, Ikenberry predicts, because the “liberal international order” will ultimately prevail. How? By drawing China and other rising states into the existing web of institutions and rules, and getting them to “share the burdens” of global governance. In other words, by opening up more seats at the table but getting the newcomers to pick up a chunk of the check. This way the US, key player in creating the original rules and creating much of the debt and damage, “will remain at the center of the global system.”
The political play is to convince China and other rising powers that the US knows it can’t “rule” anymore – if it ever did. And it certainly never wanted to. It’s like saying, “I didn’t do that, baby, and I won’t do it again.” Sounds like a classic abusive relationship. All America wants to do is lead, you see, that and keep the basic rules and institutions in place. Is that so much to ask?
This assumes of course that the country is still capable of leading, the big hope being hawked by Obama – that America can still “do big things.” But let’s be honest, aside from an occasional executive action, it looks pretty ungovernable at this point. It rarely does big things and can barely keep its infrastructure from collapsing. Just saying the country is indispensable or exceptional doesn’t make it so. On the surface, China looks more functional. But the national mood in the People’s Republic is as uncertain as America’s, and its power elite is struggling to control access to information, continuing to force-feed its people socialist slogans while it pursues its own version of crony capitalism.
So, you might say there are two Big Ones now, similar in some ways, two superpower behemoths, both ruled by unlovable elites and desperately clinging to hegemony. It looks like a good match, possibly the early days of a long, intense love-hate relationship. In that case pity the poor planet.
On the other hand, maybe they will break up before too long, like Arnold and Maria, before doing too much damage. Better yet, maybe we’ll stop being impressed with gigantic, dysfunctional couples. In the long run they’re too big to survive anyway. Superpowers – aren’t they, after all, political dinosaurs overdue for extinction?
This article is adapted from a radio broadcast on WOMM-FM (The Radiator) in Burlington. Greg Guma is a writer living in Vermont.